MAY 11 2020: COVID-19 AND GEO-POLITICS - FIVE BRIEF THOUGHTS
How will Covid-19 impact on geo-politics? I've recently been giving some talks and presentations on this question and thought it might be helpful to share a few thoughts to keep the conversation going. The reality is that we will not know how this crisis impacts on politics for a long while but here are five suggestions ...
1. The crisis will fundamentally reshape the relationship between citizen and state.
Some contend that in the years to come we will look back at this crisis as a major corrective. The argument is that it was the crash of 1929 which signalled the failure of markets and paved the way for a bigger state, which led to the New Deal in America and welfare states in Europe.
Fast forward to the 1970s and this time around it was the turn of the state to overreach as big government proved unable to resolve intractable economic and social problems. This paved the way for the return of the markets via Reaganism and Thatcherism and an economic consensus that even centre-left social democrats ended up accepting.
Now fast forward again to where we are today.
The Great Recession of 2008-2012 arrived after the markets had once again over-reached and together with the Great Lockdown these two crises are now paving the way for a much bigger and more interventionist state.
I am broadly won over by this argument even if I am sceptical of cyclical theories of history. The sheer scale of government spending as a percentage of GDP, and the mounting pile of debt, underline how -for now- free markets and fiscal conservatism are in retreat.
Inevitably, this new era of big government and big debt will have big effects across the board even if we will not see them for some time. Higher taxation, a further squeeze on the wealthy not only through tax but also public pressure for greater scrutiny and transparency, and public expenditure cuts, to name only a few. It is not hard to see how populists will make hay from this.
The current crisis might also impact on how citizens view the state itself. Through this crisis and the one before it, many people have essentially watched the state come to the rescue on two occasions in little over a decade.
Libertarians will find this disturbing but the reality is that very few voters today will instinctively relate to Ronald Reagan's quip that "government is not the solution to our problem - government is the problem". Try running that line on the one in three private sector employees in Britain who just got bailed out by the state.
The end result of all of this may be a broader public acceptance of larger and more interventionist government and a stronger willingness to experiment in state-led instruments, particularly among younger generations that have no real memory of the pre-2008 era. Economic liberals and free marketeers will be on the back foot and will once again have to restate their case to younger people who really have no memory of their creed. As my students remind me, Thatcher and Reagan are now "ancient history".
And these debates are likely here for the long-term.
The so-called 'Ratchet Effect' leads us to expect that after a major crisis the size of government does not revert to its pre-crisis levels. In the aftermath of the two world wars, for example, we saw a massive expansion of state responsibilities and spending commitments while a larger role for the state was generally accepted in wider society.
This made sense at the time but it eventually went on to lead to big inefficiencies and it will take political leadership to know when, and how, to cut back the state this time around. Conservatism is also in a state of realignment and so the reactions to this might not be as predictable as they were in the past.
2. The crisis will leave the left behind further behind
Some optimists argue that the increased visibility of the working-class during this crisis -from the Amazon couriers and postal workers to the tube and bus drivers- might push us out of an era of class division and into an era of greater 'cross-class solidarity' and a stronger social fabric.
Those who hold this view might point to studies in the past which suggest that it was during pandemics that collective anger at low wages and poor working conditions, combined with workers themselves becoming aware of their indispensable role in the economy, led to wage increases and better working conditions.
But while some of this might be true, in the near to medium term I take a more pessimistic view.
As I've outlined in a few talks now, if you look at the evidence that has emerged over recent weeks then it looks fairly certain that the Great Lockdown will exacerbate the divides in our society that began to sharpen a few decades ago and were then exacerbated by the Great Recession.
It is low-income 'precariat' workers in the low-skilled service sector and gig economy, and those with few educational qualifications, who are not only the hardest hit by economic fallout but are also more likely to have the underlying health conditions that will magnify the physical impact of the virus itself.
In the US, for example, research suggests that more than 80 percent of the jobs that will be affected by the crisis are held by low-income workers while in the UK the typical pay for the most strongly disrupted workers in 'shutdown sectors' is less than half the pay of those who are able to work from home.
The wealthy and professional middle-classes who have been insulated from the negative effects of globalization will of course feel this crisis -they have elderly mums and dads too. But they will also, on the whole, be much better sheltered from its adverse economic effects.
The finding that more than seven in ten high-income Americans are able to work from home compared to just four in ten of their low-income counterparts speaks to how these different social classes are having -and will continue to have- fundamentally different experiences of this crisis.
In the short-term, our self-isolation was compulsory. But in the longer-term it will become voluntary. And then it will become an economic luxury.
This also fits with the general story of pandemics in the past.
Contrary to the argument that they can be a "great leveller", recent work finds that most pandemics led "to a persistent and significant increase in the net Gini measure of inequality". Five years after a pandemic hit it was those with fewer educational qualifications and skills who suffered the most, the very same groups that have been driving much of the political volatility over the past decade.
3. The crisis will fundamentally reshape our view of China
Until now, when people thought about China they often associated it with trade and economic competition. But this crisis looks set to feed a much broader debate about whether or not China and the Chinese people present a 'systemic threat' to Western values, human rights and, ultimately, ways of life.
Most people have not had to think about systemic threats in this way since the end of the Cold War. Younger generations have largely not had to think about them at all -unless you consider climate change to be a systemic threat.
While attitudes toward China were already deteriorating before this crisis, an array of surveys since the crisis point to further downturns across the globe, from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Australia to India.
Sensationalist talk about "the end of globalization" is misleading -globalization will muddle on. But as we come out of this crisis, and most likely without an independent international investigation into how it started in the first place, there will likely be greater public pressure on governments to localize key supply-side chains, to bring businesses "back home", and take a tougher line with China.
The finding that 75 percent of Americans now think that their country should end its dependence on China for medical supplies and 72% want their relationship with China to change is perhaps a sign of things to come. So is recent work which suggests that the British include China and globalization when they are asked who should be blamed for the crisis. Looming Tory divisions over Huawei and 5G are another manifestation of this shifting debate.
This issue will also have big implications for the U.S. presidential election in November. Listen to podcasts by key Trump campaigners and it is clear that they plan to turn the presidential contest into a referendum on China, to try and shift the focus away from the domestic handling of the crisis onto this 'systemic threat', and one that they argue is being underestimated by "Beijing Biden".
Recent surveys point to a potentially receptive electorate. Since the crisis erupted Americans have become far more convinced that China poses a "major threat" (62 percent think so), are more likely to hold unfavourable views of China (66 per cent) and to express no confidence in President Xi (71 percent). And crucially, these views cross party lines.
Disliking China, it seems, is quickly becoming one of only a few things that unites a deeply polarized America.
4. The crisis will push us back down the 'Hierarchy of Needs'
Domestic governments will likely find that the crisis also reshapes the political issue agenda at home. Already, the collapse of employment figures is being followed by a collapse of public confidence in the the state of their economy and their household finances. Economic pessimism is on steroids.
When Abraham Maslow set out his theory of human motivation in 1943, he argued that it was only once we had satisfied our 'basic need' for economic and physical security that we could move on and start satisfying our higher-level need for social esteem, status, acceptance and to fulfil our true potential.
It was the economic and physical turmoil of the two world wars that kept the Greatest Generation focused on those basic needs while it was the relative affluence of the post-war decades that allowed their Baby Boomer children to shift the political debate onto higher-level concerns like environmentalism, multiculturalism and minority rights.
But this crisis on top of the last crisis is pushing us back down the hierarchy of needs, back toward those more fundamental worries over economic and physical security. I think this gives us good reason to expect the most fundamental questions in politics -about economic redistribution, about economic power- to come back with a bang.
In the years ahead I suspect that voters will want to talk a lot more about jobs, who should pay what and why their governments are not doing more to tackle economic and health inequalities.
We can already see how this is playing out in southern Europe, where populists are arguing that the failure to redistribute economically should be mobilised at the ballot box. Italy, for example, will not only leave this crisis as an even poorer and more indebted nation but also as a more Eurosceptic nation too.
Economic nationalism might not just be a philosophy for right-wing elites. It could easily start to go mainstream.
5. The crisis will further challenge the intergenerational contract
In America, Millennials recently overtook Baby Boomers as the largest generation. But it also becoming clear that size does not necessarily translate into economic success.
If the Great Recession was a double crisis that unfolded economically and politically then the Great Lockdown is a triple crisis that is unfolding across economics, politics and health. While in terms of health it is disproportionately impacting on the elderly, in terms of economics it is hitting Millennials and the slightly younger Generation-Z ('Zoomers') hard.
For example, recent studies find that more than half of Americans under 45-years-old have lost their job, been put on leave or had their hours cut compared to one quarter of their older counterparts. Student debt, sluggish wage growth and a housing crisis add additional layers to this, especially in the UK where lots of research has shown how these recent generations are lagging behind where their older counterparts were at the same point in their life-cycle.
Millennials came into the labour market as the Great Recession hit and many will now likely have their limited recovery reversed, at least temporarily.
Zoomers meanwhile are trying to enter the labour market amid the economic fallout from not one but two major crises. This is especially visible in southern Europe where economies are still unable to offer strong prospects to a new generation of Europeans and where young people are at much greater risk of poverty.
As lots of research shows, coming into the labour market during financial crises puts you onto lower earnings trajectories for decades to come. It is not hard to see how this undermines the implicit contract that the generations that follow will be a little more prosperous than the generations that came before. Millennials and Zoomers -who have lived through two major financial crises and a global pandemic in little over a decade- now look set to be poorer than their parents.
It is really not clear how this will impact on their values, attitudes and political demands going forward. But one thing does seem fairly likely -over time, we will have a generation of voters who will be questioning the social contract like never before.
Germany is contracting at its fastest pace since records began while in France one needs to return to the chaotic days of 1968 to find a slump that is broadly comparable what is unfolding.
But as I wrote in UnHerd last week, it will be democracies in southern Europe, like Italy, where the worst effects of a major health crisis are now colliding with the worst effects of a major economic crisis.
Italy’s manufacturers have recorded their sharpest drop since records began. More than four million businesses are shuttered. Tourism has ground to a halt. And, in a cruel twist of fate, it was the most productive regions in the north that were hit hardest by Covid. The country's lockdown has just been extended until May 3.
All of this, combined with Italy's underlying structural weaknesses, has led analysts to forecast that while France's GDP will decline this year by around 7 per cent, and Germany's by around 9 per cent, Italy could slump by 12 per cent.
Some optimists argue that this economic contraction will be short-lived; that after a disastrous second quarter the Italians will, like others in Europe, ‘bounce back’ later in the year.
But while it is now becoming clear that this downturn will be deeper and longer than the early forecasts suggested, this begs the question: bounce back to what?
As I laid out in one conference call this week, in countries like Italy the current crisis looks set to entrench, if not exacerbate, the economic and political problems that have been building for decades.
The reality, as economists like Ashoka Mody and others point out, is that Italy has been in an economic coma for much of the past twenty years. Its growth has flat-lined and living standards have stagnated.
Italians have spent all of the 21st century in a slow or no growth trap. The country has, essentially, lost two decades.
Italy was already sliding toward yet another recession at the end of last year, before anybody had even heard of Covid-19, and after having already suffered three recessions in the past decade.
Last year, its economic output was still 5 percent below the peak that had been recorded before the last crisis, more than a decade ago. This is one reason why, around the same time, the IMF forecast that even by 2024 Italy's output would still be lower than it had been in 2007.
Italy is poorly prepared for this crisis because it is still struggling to get over the last crisis. Its public debt to GDP ratio has ballooned; for each of the past six years the country has owed more than 130% of its annual economic output, a figure that will now almost certainly surpass at least 150%.
In an era when debt is cheap and government's have generally become reconciled to having a lot of it, this might not yet be problematic.
But it does not take a genius to see the potential risks, especially in a financial system that remains weak and which still hosts too many non-performing loans.
While unemployment is set to increase, it is worth remembering that Italians were already suffering from one of the highest unemployment rates in the Eurozone which, at 10%, is basically what it was nearly a decade ago (youth unemployment has been far higher — at nearly 30% —which is one reason why you hear Italian on the London tube).
Certainly, some of Italy’s problems predate its membership of the Euro: poor education, an ageing population, lack of industrial modernisation and heavy reliance on small family-run businesses have not helped.
But it is also true that Italy’s inability to breach Eurozone spending rules and invest seriously in its own economy has left it trapped in a doom loop. Which brings me to the risks that are contained in the current crisis.
Italians were already feeling frustrated, fed up and incredibly pessimistic before they watched the European Union stumble through its response to Covid. At the end of last year, while 90 per cent of the Dutch and 83 per cent of the Germans described their economies as ‘good’ the figure in Italy was ... 17 per cent.
Enthusiasm for the European Union was also on the wane.
Last year, as the Eurobarometer survey revealed, Italians were were already among the least trusting of the European Union (only 38% trust it), were among the least likely to think positively about the EU (only 33%), were among the least likely to feel that their ‘voice counts’ in the EU (only 30%) and were among the least likely to feel satisfied with how democracy is working in the EU (only 45% did so).
Then, when Covid-19 hit, and Italy was hit the hardest, Italians looked beyond their borders for help.
European solidarity was either slow to appear or did not appear at all.
Talk of unity, of learning from the mistakes of previous crises, quickly made way for nation-first approaches to closing borders and restricting the export of medical supplies. Who filled the vacuum? Russia and China.
When several states, including Italy, then asked their Eurozone partners to share debt, more economically secure states in the north, notably Germany and the Netherlands, said no.
The idea of 'coronabonds' was quickly pushed off the table.
Anxious that the sharing debt now might lead to the sharing of more debt in the future, northern states argued that financial assistance should come instead through the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).
But many in the south, shaped by the experience of the last crisis and events in Greece, fear what kind of strings might be attached to such assistance. Many voters see this is a path to further 'structural reforms' aka austerity.
Just last week, for example, nearly half of all Italians rejected the idea of receiving help from the ESM because they see it as “a tool to impose Greek-style austerity”.
In the end, an eventual €500 billion agreement was reached while the more complex debates were kicked down the road. The request from states like Italy to pool debt was, unsurprisingly, rejected.
Yet all of this has clearly registered among ordinary Italians.
Look at the latest polls and you will find a population that looks disgruntled and disillusioned.
In recent weeks, nearly nine in ten said that the ‘EU is not helping us’, more than seven in ten felt that the EU ‘has not contributed in any way to addressing the crisis’ and nearly eight in ten resigned themselves to the view that the EU is unlikely to change
Given that political science tells us that what matters most to voters today is not so much ideology but rather perceptions of competence then these numbers should worry those in the European Union.
So too should other polls that in recent weeks point to an increase in public support in Italy for leaving the EU and the Eurozone entirely; last week, more than one in three Italians say they would vote to leave while fewer than half now think that this would be a bad idea.
The chart below shows how public confidence in EU institutions has evolved.
Feeling abandoned, many Italians have also become less trusting of the EU —with just one in four doing so — and more likely to say that their membership of the EU is a ‘disadvantage’, with 67% doing so.
Then, just a few days ago, one poll suggested that were Italy to hold a referendum on its continuing EU membership the result would be Remain 51 per cent and Leave 49 per cent -numbers that many British observers would recognise.
Is Italy about to leave the EU? I doubt it.
But -once again- poor management of a major crisis is leading us to ask big questions about the longer-term ability of the EU and the Eurozone to sustain public support in the more disadvantaged and indebted south.
As one diplomat from a large EU member state told the BBC this week: "This has not been our finest moment. Our response has come late and has been marred by nationalism. Solidarity went out the window with the first coronavirus victim".
And as even the New York Times noted this week: the question to ask is not whether the EU will survive — because it will — but rather what is the point of any union if it cannot find unity when unity is needed most.
Passionate pro-Europeans routinely begin their columns and tweets with the famous quote by Jean Monnet: ‘Europe will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises’.
But many other things can be forged in crises — including Euroscepticism.
We tend to forget this now, but it was the EU’s fumbled response to two earlier crises — the Great Recession and refugee crisis — that convinced a majority of Britain’s voters that being in this organisation was, ultimately, not in their longer-term economic interest.
Most Italians have not yet reached the same conclusion; "Quitaly", the Italian version of Brexit, is unlikely in the near term.
But make no mistake: this crisis is hitting Italy harder than most while the recovery, when it finally arrives, will also likely leave southern states lagging even further behind their neighbours in the north.
Put this alongside the European Union's bungled response to another crisis and it is not hard to see how the citizens of another major EU member state start to question their future like never before.
When Italy eventually emerges from this crisis it will not only be a poorer country but will also be a more Eurosceptic one, too.
Politicians, said the historian A.J.P. Taylor, do not create the current of events. They can only float along with them and try to steer.
But he was talking about the long contours of European history, not the sudden and shocking arrival of a global pandemic.
How to float along and steer through something that looks like an overwhelming tsunami is, largely, unknown.
The outbreak of coronavirus has already put much of the world in lockdown.
It has pushed the global economy into freefall, killed more than 13,000 people and could yet kill hundreds of thousands more, perhaps millions.
And it will also have big political effects.
Leaders, governments, even ideologies will be judged according to how well they meet the crisis and the fallout.
Some politicians, despite what they might have hoped, are only ever remembered for one thing.
Think Neville Chamberlain and appeasement. Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis. David Cameron and Brexit.
Coronavirus could easily become that 'one thing' for today's leaders.
So how will it impact on politics?
The short answer -the honest answer- is that we don't really know.
But that should not stop us from asking questions that might help organise our thinking.
Here are a few for starters.
Will the crisis deliver another body blow -and potentially a fatal one- to globalisation and the liberal world order, which has already been in retreat for much of the past decade?
Or will it provide a new raison d'être for liberalism, reviving public support for individual freedom and the argument that amid large-scale, global challenges like pandemics and climate change the only possible future is a multilateral one?
Will the crisis and its fallout, which is already hitting low-income workers the hardest, exacerbate the global populist backlash against incompetent and selfish elites?
Or will the arrival of a new 'external enemy', the first serious global threat since the end of the Cold War, focus minds on the need to build cross-class solidarity?
Will it sharpen divides between the wealthy winners of globalisation -who have the economic security to flee into isolation, private healthcare and find shelter from the worst effects- and the left behinders who do not?
Will the bailouts and fiscal injections pave the way for a return of big government and economic interventionism, perhaps even a 'post-COVID' consensus that leaves more space for the state and less room for market liberalism?
Will the expected shrinking of the American economy by 24 per cent in the second quarter, which is two and a half times the largest drop recorded in 1958, combined with the return of unemployment rates not seen since the Great Recession, demolish Donald Trump's re-election hopes?
Or will talk of a 'Chinese virus' and the need to close borders remind us all that -at its core- politics is often less about lofty appeals to humanitarianism and more about the attribution of blame?
Will the crisis, which has so far enhanced nation-states at the expense of supranational institutions, embolden economic nationalists at the expense of liberal free-traders?
Or will it lead to new and imaginative responses to an already weakened global architecture?
Will the sudden appearance of a common threat finally end the escalating political polarisation in America, and repair a divided Brexit Britain, or will the crisis become merely the latest issue to be seen through a partisan lens?
Will yet another crisis in the Eurozone -which is forecast to shrink between 10-15 percent through June- prove to be the final straw as exasperated voters in the south start to question the benefits of monetary union? Or will north-south divides over redistribution and east-west divides over refugees and social liberalism finally give way for integration reforms and genuine solidarity?
Will the crisis accelerate a loss of public trust in experts and media, one of the touchstones of our populist age?
Or, conversely, will it restore public confidence in experts as politicians are forced to defer to medical and scientific expertise?
Will it exacerbate already visible intergenerational tensions between Boomers and Zoomers, with partying spring-breakers becoming a symbol of a social settlement that has lost any sense of moral obligation to fellow citizens?
Or will the sharp generational divides in suffering and fatalities fuel a renaissance, in our ageing societies, of cross-generational cooperation, support and mutual respect?
Will social-distancing encourage our increasingly individualistic Western societies to ‘hunker down’ even more, pushing them into atomisation and reviving fears about a collapse of social capital?
Or do the millions of new Whatsapp groups, and outpouring of volunteering, signal a much needed revival of communitarianism and civic culture?
We will not have answers to these questions for many years, much like it was impossible to accurately forecast the political effects of the Great Recession in the immediate shadow of the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
It is only today, more than a decade on from the start of the last financial crisis, that are able to stand back and survey the landscape.
And it is perhaps helpful to return to the last crisis to make sense of the current one.
As research has shown, the decade after the last economic meltdown saw citizens become less trusting of politicians, less satisfied with democracy, more critical about the way it was working, less supportive of established parties, more supportive of populist outsiders and generally more volatile at elections (on the research see here, here and here). Politics became less predictable, political systems became more fragmented and polarised, and it became harder to deliver the strong, stable and ideologically coherent governments that are needed to navigate big crises. A decade that started with a global financial crisis evolved into one that witnessed the rise of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Brexit, Matteo Salvini and Five Star in Italy, Bolsonaro in Brazil, López Obrador in Mexico, Modi in India, Syriza in Greece, Law and Justice in Poland, Babiš in the Czech Republic, Orbán in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines, among others. The financial crisis was not the only reason for their success but it played a part.
And this was especially true in southern Europe, where the likes of Italy and Spain -which are now suffering some of the worst effects of coronavirus- saw a ‘double crisis’ that was both economic and political. The clear risk now is that coronavirus pushes some states into a ‘triple crisis’ focused on politics, economics and health. Might things be different this time around? Will the effects of this crisis be different from the effects of the previous crisis?
One thing to keep in mind during the weeks ahead is the well-documented 'rally effect' - a tendency for citizens, when confronted with a big external threat, to 'rally round' their mainstream leaders and institutions.
The famous example was a surge of support for George W. Bush after 9/11, something his father also experienced during Desert Storm.
Will these short-term effects last? We don't really know.
Alongside leadership is the big pile of research showing that what really matters during moments like this -during big external shocks- are public perceptions of competence.
"Is the government managing this crisis competently?"
It was New Labour's failure to manage the financial crisis that paved the way for David Cameron, and it was then David Cameron's failure to manage the 'immigration shock' that paved the way for Brexit.
Much of this will be shaped by partisanship, especially in the United States.
Elsewhere, it is likely that voters will trace this perceived competency to where their country stands compared to others.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we are all now sliding back down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The fact that people’s economic optimism has just crashed in the United Kingdom and United States reflects how, for millions of voters around the world, Maslow’s higher-level concerns about esteem, status and lifestyle issues are moving quickly into the rear-view mirror.
Instead, more fundamental concerns about economic security will return to the forefront -expect big debates about unemployment and jobs, taxation, inequality, redistribution and public services.
This too could have big political implications given that, historically, economic hardship tends to benefit the left, not the right.
Might this point to a revival of centre-left social democracy, left-wing populism or continued support for the already ascendant left-wing Greens in Europe?
It is certainly possible.
But given the past decade it is also not hard to see how new worries about economic and physical security could 'fuse' with their cultural counterparts -something that happened in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
One reason why left-wing parties did not profit from the last crisis, as they had from crises in the past, is because of how the Great Recession became entwined in the public mindset with cultural issues like immigration, borders, Islamist terrorism and the refugee crisis.
All of this pushed liberalism into retreat.
Throw in the likely politicisation of China -a debate that could easily move beyond economics and trade to competing values, behaviours and ways of life- and the end result could be a continuation of the more disruptive politics that we have come to expect.
This budget was always destined to be big. It was the first since Brexit, the first of a new decade and the first of a new government. And it didn’t disappoint.
Putting the unique issue of coronavirus to one side, this is also a budget that tells us a lot about how British politics is changing, about how some of the unwritten rules are being overturned.
Austerity is now firmly in the rearview mirror but so too, apparently, is fiscal conservatism.
The cash is now being splashed. Between today and the next general election period of 2023-2024, overall spending is estimated to rise by £76 billion, or 9 percent in real terms.
Investment spending will rise to 3 percent of national income, double the average seen over the past forty years. This will largely be paid for by extra borrowing and, almost certainly, tax increases that are yet to come.
Remarkably, this means that under a Conservative government public spending will reach 41 percent of national income, meaning that the size of the state will balloon to above its pre-crisis level.
Or, put another way, and as the Resolution Foundation points out, a Conservative Chancellor is planning a bigger state than was seen under Tony Blair, and one that will be financed through higher borrowing than was seen under Gordon Brown.
Much of this reflects how the government intends to take advantage of historically low interest rates to spend big. But that decision also reflects something deeper -how today's Conservatives are far more more tuned in to economic geography than almost all of their predecessors.
Why? Because it was blue-collar Britain and the non-London regions that just helped Conservatives win their largest majority since 1987 and the largest share of the vote since Thatcher came to power in 1979.
As we show in a new research paper, which I presented to folks in the City this week, the success of this Conservative government will be shaped not only by how it responds to unexpected events like coronavirus but also how it navigates the wider 'realignment' of British politics.
Put simply, Boris Johnson and his party are now far more dependent upon the left behind for votes. This will have big political implications, which we are seeing play out through the budget.
While Rishi Sunak's debut will inevitably be remembered for his economic reply to the coronavirus what he presented was, essentially, a budget for the left behind.
Hundreds of billions will be spent on building new roads, motorways, railways, hospitals and broadband. Public sector net investment will total around £330 billion in real terms over the next five years, partly due to an extra £100 billion in capital spending, which will take the average level of public sector net investment to levels not seen since the 1970s.
And, crucially, much of this ‘infrastructure revolution’ will take place outside London and the south-east, even if the exact spending commitments have not yet come to light. The government will take advantage of low interest rates to invest in regions that have suffered from decades of chronic underinvestment. A new economic campus for the north and a stated desire to move some 22,000 civil servants outside of London reflect this broader aim to 'level-up'. So too does the biggest ever increase in investment in Research and Development (R&D).
In the past, much of more spending on R&D went to London and the southeast, especially the ‘Golden Triangle’ that connects London, Oxford and Cambridge. But now it will be redirected to universities around the country. As Chancellor Sunak (rightly) noted, while talent is evenly spread opportunity is not.
It was also confirmed that the Treasury will revise its spending formula to ensure that more attention is given to how spending decisions reflects Britain's -and the Conservative Party's- economic geography.
Low-income voters who swung heavily behind the Conservatives at the last election will also benefit from an increase in the National Insurance threshold to £9,500, estimated to benefit around 31 million workers, and plans to raise the National Living Wage, which will make it one of the highest in developed nations.
This is effectively the Conservative Party parking its tanks on Labour's lawn.
And it reflects how Conservatives have grasped two new fundamental laws in British politics.
First, it is easier for the right to move left on economics than it is for the left to move right on culture and identity. Johnson can hold the line on Brexit and reform immigration while dramatically boosting spending, raising the minimum wage and promising to level-up Britain. This is a formidable political offer that leaves little room for Labour.
Second, most people want power sent down not up. A new devolution deal for West Yorkshire, and a five-year settlement for eight mayoral combined authorities, are symbols of how the government intends to redistribute not just money but political power. Continuing to devolve power across the regions will be crucial.
Another £1.5 billion will also go to improving Further Education (FE) colleges, which are key for the Conservative Party’s new working-class and less well educated electorate. Johnson is much less dependent upon university graduates than David Cameron ever was.
FE colleges and big increases in R&D spending are also important given that we know that big increases in capital expenditure will not tackle the underlying regional divides in skills and productivity. The government will inevitably have to go much further on this. While the scale of borrowing and spending will worry fiscal conservatives, there is no doubt that the government is generally heading in the right direction. As last month’s report by the UK2070 Commission made clear, and as I summarised at a recent talk to investment managers in London, Britain enjoys impressive employment figures but remains one of the most geographically unequal economies in the developed world.
For too long, London and the South East have enjoyed the bulk of productivity and employment growth. If you compare growth across the regions since the crisis then you are left with what you see below (annual average real terms % change, ordered by 1997-2007 average).
In short, people had good reason to question the settlement. Between 1998 and 2016, London’s economy grew by 71 percent compared with 30 percent in Yorkshire, the North East and the West Midlands regions. Meanwhile, in the capital real growth in productivity (GDP per capita) has been almost twice the UK average while London and the South East have hosted nearly 50 percent of all employment growth.
These regional disparities have been reinforced by patterns of investment in things like R&D. Today, more than half of all domestic expenditure on Research and Development goes to London and the South East. It is no wonder that so many have felt left behind and left out.
UKIP, Brexit, the Brexit Party and then the big majority for Boris Johnson were all fuelled at least partly by this anger. And this divide between the 'hubs and heartlands' will remain a key fault line in our politics going forward, not just in Britain but across most of our advanced democracies.
Addressing these regional divides will be one of three things that come to define Johnson's premiership, alongside how his government responds to coronavirus and how it manages the Brexit fallout.
In the nineteenth century, one of his predecessors, Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, warned that ‘the privileged and the people’ were breaking into ‘two nations’.
Johnson's decision to stand in the Disraeli tradition and rule as a 'one-nation' conservative not only helped him win the general election but is now going down extremely well with voters.
But make no mistake: there are lots of icebergs ahead.
Sluggish growth. The economic fallout of coronavirus. A possible recession. Inevitable tax changes. Continued pressure on public services, not least the NHS. And a need to boost not only connectivity but productivity.
To that we can add the cultural drivers that got Johnson where he is. Left behind Britain not only asked for more bridges, trains and roads but lower immigration and a decisive economic break from the EU.
For now, this big budget gives Johnson lots of ammunition. Both he and his Chancellor have a narrative about how they are bringing the country back together again after austerity and the Brexit wars.
And most voters do seem satisfied. But the question, as always in politics, is for how long?
FEBRUARY 7 2020: THE CONSOLIDATION OF NATIONAL POPULISM
Has populism peaked? This is the question that some commentators have been asking after a recent regional election in Italy delivered a setback to Matteo Salvini, the de facto head of Europe’s populist family. In the affluent and historically left-wing region of Emilia Romagna, Salvini’s right-wing alliance finished more than seven points behind the Left. It wasn’t even close.
It is not a surprise that some have breathed a sigh of relief. For much of the past three years Salvini has seemed unstoppable. While the 46-year-old has miscalculated, like last summer when he tried but failed to bring down the government, he has transformed his 'Lega' movement from what started as a small northern separatist party into a serious national force. He has swept south and into first place in the polls.
But now his revolt has stalled, or so it seems. "Salvini's first defeat", is how Italy's La Repubblica described it while for others it signals something far more profound -a watershed moment, a sign that populism is, finally, running out of steam. “Peak Populism?” asked The Times. But is this true? Step back and look at the wider landscape. Last spring, Europe’s national populists won a record share of seats in the European Parliament and, as the chart below shows, since the 1980s they have gradually been consolidating support. Last year saw especially strong performances by the Italy's Lega, Law and Justice in Poland, Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France, Hungary's Fidesz and the Brexit Party (formerly UKIP).
Meanwhile, at national elections in Poland Law and Justice won a new record share of the vote, shortly after Fidesz almost returned to its all-time high in Hungary. In Belgium, national populists enjoyed a comeback while in Spain and the Netherlands new members of this disruptive family, Vox and Forum for Democracy, enjoyed breakthroughs at the national and local levels respectively. Elsewhere, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has continued to advance at the state level in Saxony, Bremen, Brandenburg and Thuringia while this month, for the first time ever in postwar Germany, the AfD helped form a government by joining with mainstream parties to oust a left-wing leader (the widespread shock has led the new premier to promptly resign, paving the way for fresh elections). It is worth remembering that in the 1990s, not that long ago, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom were seen as four states that were 'immune' to populism.
To be sure, these parties have not prospered everywhere and it is important not to exaggerate their success. Nor are they the only challengers to be doing well. In states like Austria, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland the Greens have also made gains at the expense of the older parties. As I point out when speaking about the key macro trends in geo-politics, this is part of a wider process of 'fragmentation', which is making it harder and harder for Europe to get the strong and stable governments that it needs.
The Green 'surge' is also not as clear cut as some suggest. In Austria, the Greens just joined a coalition government and won new environment taxes but in return for a ban on schoolchildren wearing headscarves and a clamp down on illegal migration, pointing to how Europe continues to drift right on the key identity questions of our time. Businesses should also think about what a Green surge means in terms of its impact on economic policy, protectionism and interventionism.
But national populist parties do now appear to be strongly anchored in many democracies while their electorates are often younger than people think. Globally, there are around five times as many populist parties and leaders in power today than there were at the end of the Cold War. And there have also been other important changes outside of electoral politics.
As in Germany, there are signs that the once strong ‘cordon sanitaire’ against populism is weakening, if not breaking down. Last year, King Philippe became the first Belgian monarch to meet a far right party since 1936. Two months ago Sweden’s centre-right broke its earlier promise to never work with the Sweden Democrats. Then comes the policy influence. The Brexit Party might be finished but its call for an Australian-based immigration points system and more aid for non-London regions has been picked up by Boris Johnson. In Austria, the Freedom Party lost ground but the centre-right continues to pitch to national populist voters by promising to oppose ‘political Islam’ and cut illegal migration. And even some on the centre-left, as in Denmark, have won elections while leaning left on welfare and right on immigration, a formula that Boris Johnson would recognise. As I have argued for a while, one of the key messages in contemporary politics is that it will be easier for the right to lean left on the economy than for the left to lean right on culture and identity. Somehow, parties on the left have to find a way of speaking not only about economics but also these latter questions that flow from feelings of cultural insecurity.
Meanwhile, in the United States this week brought strong numbers for Trump, with the respected Gallup reporting that: 74% of Americans feel optimistic about their financial position (the highest since 1977); 63% approve of Trump's handling of the economy (the highest for any President since 2001); 59% feel better off than they were a year ago (the highest since 1999); 51% feel favourable toward the Republicans versus 45% who feel the same for the Democrats; and 49% approve of Trump, his highest rating with this pollster to date. Increasingly, the re-election of the world's most famous populist looks more likely than not which, in turn, will raise big questions about why the liberal left has again failed to fend off the populists.
Rather than retreating, then, this movement seems to be consolidating. And we need to ask: why this is happening? The answer lies not in the 'here and now' but rather four deep-rooted trends that have been sweeping through our societies for many years and which we outline in National Populism.
The first is widespread public distrust of established parties and institutions, especially among workers and non-graduates who feel excluded from the corridors of power. The second is intense concern not just about objective deprivation but relative deprivation; a feeling shared by millions that they are losing out relative to others, whether affluent elites, immigrants or ascendant workers in other parts of the globe. This is as much about feelings of dignity, esteem and respect as objective outcomes like incomes and GDP.
Third, many people worry about both the pace and scale of demographic change; anxieties that are anchored not just in economics but flow from a perception that this rapid change is overturning national identities, cultures, traditions and ways of life. And, fourth, we are entering a new era of ‘dealignment’, in which people’s bonds to the main parties are weaker. This is making it easier for challengers to rally support and our politics more volatile. These long-term, deep-rooted shifts are why populists will continue to find receptive electorates for many years to come.
Back in Italy, Salvini might have failed to cause an upset in Emilia-Romagna but once again he walked away with his highest ever vote in a region that has been dominated by the left for more than half a century. Like populists in other left strongholds in Europe, from England's Red Wall to France's industrial heartlands, Salvini has been sinking roots for some time; he took 19 percent in this region in 2018 and nearly 34 percent at European elections last year.
This comes off the back of Lega's record result at the 2018 election, its strongest ever result at the European Parliament elections in 2019 and a string of record results in the regions of Aosta Valley, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Piedmont, Lombardy, Sardinia, South Tyrol, Trentino, Fruili-Venevia Giulia and Umbria, another left stronghold. It all feels so familiar to those of us who watched Nigel Farage chip away at Labour’s Red Wall before it collapsed at the 2019 general election. The left may be able to turn the tide but the battle looks set to be a long one.
In the shadow of another election in Europe, and an emboldened President Trump, it still feels as though many are struggling to find a convincing reply to populism and the grievances that underpin it. “Let’s start again,” tweeted Salvini as he boarded a train departing Emilia-Romagna. “He who hesitates is lost.” Matthew Goodwin - Speaking - Academic - Twitter
DECEMBER 24 2019: WHY LABOUR LOST
The 2019 general election will be remembered as one of the most consequential elections in Britain's recent history. Aside from rejecting a more economically radical Labour Party, the British people used the election to provide what their elected representatives had been unable to provide: an answer to Brexit. For Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party the election was a triumph. They won their largest majority since 1987 and the largest majority for any party since New Labour's second landslide in 2001. Remarkably, and despite older arguments about the 'costs of ruling', a Conservative Party that had been in power for nearly a decade attracted nearly 44 per cent of the vote; this was not only its highest share since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 but its fourth consecutive increase since entering power in 2010. A Conservative Party leader who had been widely derided before the election became, after John Major, only the second leader in British history to lead his party to a fourth term in office. By re-aligning his party, Boris Johnson can now claim to be the only Conservative leader to have truly triumphed over the Europe question, an issue that had dogged and undermined Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May.
For Labour, in sharp contrast, the 2019 election produced a historic defeat. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour plunged to 32 per cent of the vote and just 203 seats, a loss of 59 seats on 2017 and its lowest number of seats since 1935. Despite facing an incumbent Conservative Party that had been in office for nearly a decade and had presided over austerity, a prolonged economic squeeze and a divisive national debate over Brexit, Labour went backwards. The Conservatives, led by an Old Etonian Oxford graduate, captured 57 seats and took all but three of these from Labour. These included many traditional Labour heartlands in the so-called Red Wall; Great Grimsby (Labour since 1945); Bishop Auckland (1935); Bassetlaw (1935); Wakefield (1932); Leigh (1922); Don Valley (1922) and Bolsover, a seat that Labour had never lost. Labour was humiliated in the very communities that it had been founded to represent. And, as I wrote in the Sunday Times, with Brexit the Labour Party has lost the first big culture war to emerge since the financial crisis -not easy for a party that has long believed it would prosper amid an economic slowdown.
For Britain's other parties it was a night of triumph or despair. The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, which had both dominated the European elections only seven months earlier, now had a very different experience. Despite increasing their vote share by more than 4 points, the Lib Dems only won 11 seats, down one from 2017. Their leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat to the SNP. Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party also had a disappointing night. Despite polling well in a number of target seats, such as Barnsley, Doncaster and Hartlepool, the Brexit Party failed to cut through amidst the broader Conservative surge. Farage, however, could claim that while he had lost a battle he had won the war. By agreeing to stand down in 317 Conservative seats the Brexit Party helped to clear the path for Brexit. Meanwhile, the SNP won 48 of 59 Scottish seats, a net gain of 13 which cemented Scottish nationalism as the premier political force north of the border.
But what explains the outcome of the 2019 general election? In the aftermath of a historic defeat, many in Labour pointed to either to Mr Corbyn's unpopularity or to Brexit. “Despite our best efforts", said Corbyn himself, "the election became mainly about Brexit". But was the election really shaped only by Brexit? What about the longer term factors that had been shaping the underlying sources of support for Labour and the Conservatives over many years? Was Labour's defeat a reply to our post-2016 divides or, more accurately, a long time coming? And to what extent, if at all, does the 2019 general election represent what academics call a 'critical turning point', namely a sudden break from past practice?
Critical turning points in British politics are rare; they happen when an election delivers an abrupt, large and enduring form of change whereby people reject their 'normal' voting behaviour and the pendulum swings decisively in a completely new direction. Examples include 1924, 1945 and also 1997, when Tony Blair and New Labour swept to their largest majority in history and the largest majority in the postwar era. Can 2019 be added to the list of critical elections, or are we instead witnessing a more gradual realignment of British politics that has been taking place over many years? These are the questions that we will explore through nine key messages about the 2019 election, some of which draw on research that I've been conducting with David Cutts, Oliver Heath, Paula Surridge, and also Harold Clarke and Paul Whiteley. So here is what I think is important ...
1. Labour had a competency problem. One popular theory among academics is that what really matters to voters is whether or not they believe that a party is competent. These perceptions of competence are shaped, in turn, by things like leadership. What is abundantly clear is that at the 2019 general election, and on the surface, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had a very big competency problem. In the eyes of most voters Corbyn was neither credible not competent. His leadership ratings in 2019 were weaker than they had been in 2017; 76 per cent of Britons felt dissatisfied with the way Corbyn was doing his job. He had the worst ‘net satisfaction’ ratings of any opposition leader since Ipsos-MORI began asking the question in 1977. He failed to find unity on Brexit; two in three voters felt that Labour's position on Brexit, the most important issue of the day, was 'unclear'. And even when Labour tried to make the election about issues other than Brexit they still stumbled into competency problems. While many of their policies -like raising income tax on high earners, renationalising rail and utilities and reserving one-third of boardroom places for workers- enjoy strong support, Labour was simply not seen as a credible manager of the economy; only 16 per cent of voters trusted Corbyn most to run the economy (versus 34 per cent for Johnson); 57 per cent of voters thought it likely that Britain would enter recession if Labour won the election (versus 39 per cent for the Conservatives); and 67 per cent thought that Labour’s spending promises would require tax raises (versus 46 per cent for the Conservatives). The Conservatives also enjoyed ‘issue ownership’ in many areas; not only were they the most trusted party on the economy but also Brexit, crime and, in some polls, had closed Labour's historic lead on the NHS. In the short-term context of the campaign all of this stacked the deck firmly against Labour. But it would also be a mistake to focus only on competency and Mr Corbyn. Labour faced many bigger problems ...
2. Boris Johnson consolidated the Leave vote. Given that the election was held against the backdrop of Brexit, one of the most important elements was the extent to which Boris Johnson and his party consolidated the Leave vote. The Conservative strategy in 2019 marked a continuation of Nick Timothy's strategy two years earlier; the centre-right party would downplay David Cameron’s more socially liberal brand of conservatism in favour of building a stronger relationship with the more socially conservative and working-class areas of the country that had not only turned out for Brexit three years earlier but had been drifting toward the Conservatives ever since. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were widely ridiculed but their strategy was very successful; between the European elections in the spring and the final polls of the 2019 campaign the percentage of Leavers backing the Conservatives surged from 36 to 71 per cent; the percentage of 2017 Conservatives returning to the fold increased from 58 to 85 per cent; and the percentage of 2017 Conservatives defecting to the Brexit Party crashed from 30 to 4 per cent.
Post-election polls confirm the story; Johnson retained 85 per cent of people who had voted Conservative in 2017 and 74 per cent of people who had voted Leave in 2016. Labour, in sharp contrast, only retained 72 per cent of its 2017 electorate (11 per cent decamped to the Conservatives) and not even half of Remainers; Lord Ashcroft similarly found that 92 per cent of Conservative Leavers and 25 per cent of Labour Leavers voted Conservative earlier this month, revealing how Johnson's 'strategy of consolidation' cut through. Crucially, 19 per cent of Remainers also stayed loyal to Johnson; we hear much about how our new Brexit identities matter above all else but the fact that one in five Remainers put their party identity above their Brexit identity is really important. If this really was a 'Brexit election', therefore, then only one side, Leavers, mobilised accordingly.
This is partly why the Conservative campaign was able to make so much progress in Leave Land. As shown in the figure below, the change in the Conservative vote share was strongly positively related to the estimated Leave vote in 2016. Although the Conservatives suffered minor setbacks in very pro-Remain seats, they more than compensated for this by making greater gains in seats that had backed Brexit. This advantage for the Conservatives was also likely helped by a turnout problem on Labour's side. On average, turnout fell more in Labour seats (by -2.6 percentage points) than Conservative seats (-0.9 percentage points). And in terms of Brexit turnout in Remain seats fell by 0.6 points and 1.9 points in Leave seats. It was in Labour seats that had strongly backed Brexit in 2016 where turnout declined even more sharply, by 3 points. This suggests that Labour suffered from a turnout problem in its more strongly pro-Brexit and working-class seats.
3. Geography gave Johnson an in-built advantage. By consolidating the Leave vote, Johnson and the Conservatives gave themselves another important in-built advantage. Estimates suggest that in 2016 Leave won more than 60 per cent of general election seats. The Leave vote, in other words, was spread far more evenly across England and Wales while the Remain vote was more concentrated in cities. Johnson succeeded where Theresa May struggled by fully exploiting this in-built advantage for Leavers. Of the 401 seats that were estimated to have voted Leave, the Conservatives won 73 per cent of them (292 seats). By contrast, of the 231 seats that voted Remain Labour only won 41 per cent of them (95 seats). Crucially, the Conservatives also won nearly one-third (73) of Remain seats where they were not only helped by Farage's decision to stand down Brexit Party candidates but their ability to retain a significant chunk of those Conservative Remainers. So, while public support for parties that backed Remain was greater than support for parties that backed Brexit, the Leave votes were not only more unified but more efficiently distributed across parliamentary constituencies, which translated into a large parliamentary majority for Boris Johnson.
This also helps to explain why the Conservatives polled so strongly in England, where they won nearly 48 per cent of the vote. Their largest increases came in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Humber and England's North East. More than 55 per cent of their gains (32 seats) were in these regions. However, the Conservatives lost ground in London and barely made any advances across southern England; the party only won 4 seats in these regions that it did not win two years previously. It did much better in Wales, increasing its vote share by 2.5 points and winning six seats. Only the efficiency of Labour’s vote in Wales saved it from further losses to the Conservatives. Things could have been much worse for Labour. And unless it comes up with a credible plan then things could easily deteriorate further.
These geographical advantages for the Conservatives were reflected in disadvantages for Labour. Corbyn and his party hoped to revive their uneasy coalition of 2017. But, in the end this did not happen. Labour’s support fell back by 8 points in England, 8.5 points in Scotland, where the party was reduced to just one seat, and 8 points in Wales, where Labour lost six seats in another traditional stronghold. Labour’s vote share plummeted by 13 points in the North East, 10 points in Yorkshire and 9 points across the Midlands. The uneasy coalition of its northern heartlands with southern Remain seats that Labour had managed to keep together in 2017 fell apart. Labour's vote tanked by more than 6 points in strongly Remain seats and by more than 10 points in strongly Leave seats.
One problem for a Labour Party that had drifted to supporting a second referendum is that the geography created by the 2017 election simply left too few opportunities to make big inroads into pro-Remain seats. Of the 231 seats that had backed Remain in 2016, only 78 were held by Conservatives. Labour by contrast held 104. And of the 95 seats which recorded a stronger Remain vote of at least 60 per cent, only 16 were held by Conservatives while Labour held 52. The knock-on consequences for Labour would be profound. Because of their failure to unite the 'Remain vote', as they had in 2017, and also these more limited opportunities for growth, they would have to win back lots of Leavers and hold up areas of the country that had been drifting away from them for years, if not decades. Labour was thus exposed from all angles and this was reflected in what happened in the Red Wall.
4. A two-punch combination cracked the Red Wall. Future historians will inevitably present Boris Johnson as the man who smashed the 'Red Wall'; the mainly pro-Brexit Leave seats that stretch from north Wales over to Great Grimsby on the East Coast. But this is actually misleading. The reality is that the gains he made in 2019 were the result of a two-punch combination. In 2017, Theresa May gambled that her path to a majority ran through capturing a large number of the nearly 150 Labour seats that had voted for Brexit. But whereas May only won six pro-Brexit Labour seats, Johnson carved a much larger slice out of Labour’s territory. Of the 54 seats that the Conservatives took from Labour, 50 had voted Leave in 2016. Of the 50 seats where the Conservative vote increased the sharpest all but one had voted Leave in 2016. Johnson's 2019 majority thus built directly on the geography of the Leave vote. But it also built on the advances that Theresa May and Nick Timothy had overseen in 2017; the first punch came from May, the second from Johnson.
Two years ago, the Conservative vote increased nationally by 5.5 points but in the Red Wall seats it surged by over 10-points. As we showed in an earlier paper, in 2017 the Conservatives had already started to make big gains in exactly the sorts of places that had previously given strong support to UKIP and then to Brexit. By increasing the Conservative vote share most sharply in these pro-Leave, less well educated, older and heavily white seats, including many in the Red Wall, May and her team had, albeit unknowingly, set the stage for Johnson's more ambitious invasion two years later. In 2019, Johnson and his party built and expanded upon this, gaining many more votes in areas where the Conservatives had historically struggled; as shown below, they performed strongest in seats with large numbers of working-class voters, where average education levels are low, populations are older and there are few ethnically diverse communities.
Whereas in 2010 and 2015, Cameron's Conservative Party won more votes where there were more graduates, in 2017 this patten disappeared and then in 2019 it was reversed. Today, there are fewer Conservative voters in places that have more degree-holding voters. The Conservative Party has long prospered in older and heavily white seats but its breakthrough in 2019 in these strongly working class and less well educated seats is a more dramatic development (check out these age divides). The class effects are nothing short of remarkable. Post-election polling suggests that the Conservatives had a comfortable 10-point lead above Labour amongst ABC1 voters, with 43% voting Conservative and 33% voting Labour. But Johnson and his party held an even more dramatic 15-point lead amongst C2DE voters (48 per cent voted Conservative, 33 per cent Labour). What all of this means, essentially, is that the electorate that just handed Boris Johnson his big majority looks and thinks profoundly differently from the electorate that handed David Cameron his victories in 2010 and 2015. The key question that may yet come to define Johnson's premiership is already visible: how can he sustain the loyalty of these voters? But for Labour the question is perhaps even more profound: how can the left find a way of winning back voters who might agree with Labour on the economy but fundamentally disagree with ton questions about culture, identity and patriotism. Suffice to say that George Orwell would have had an absolute field day with this election
5. Labour's defeat was a long time coming. In the shadow of winning his majority, Johnson went straight to Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield, which for the first time in eighty-four years had gone Conservative. “I can imagine people’s pencils hovering over the ballot paper and wavering before coming down for us and the Conservatives, and I know that people may have been breaking the voting habits of generations to vote for us”, said the Conservative Prime Minister. But exactly how was Johnson able to make so much ground in the Red Wall? Much of the post-election commentary has focused on Brexit, the unpopularity of Mr Corbyn and what did or did not happen during the election campaign itself. But the reality is that while the Red Wall was breached in 2019, its foundations had been weakening for many years. The consolidation and surge of the Leave vote may have been the final element which cracked the brick work, but the decay, reflected in Labour’s weakening relationship with working-class Britain, had been setting in over much of the last decade, if not earlier. We can explore this by looking at the difference in the Labour and Conservative vote share by the class composition of seats in England and Wales. The "falling ladder" in the figure below is revealing; Labour’s advantage over the Conservatives in the working-class heartlands that the left-wing party had been founded to represent gradually disappears. Although the decline of class voting is a well-studied phenomenon, even as recently as 2010 Gordon Brown and Labour still performed substantially better than the Conservatives in seats with lots of people in working-class occupations. Yet then things change; even while the Conservatives were in power, presiding over austerity, Labour’s in-built advantage in working-class seats gradually dissolved. This raises an intriguing but also devastating question for the Labour Party: is it still a working-class party?
6. Sequencing is important. To understand why Labour's defeat was a long time coming we can go even further back. Long before anybody had heard of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit or the EU referendum there had already been two canaries in the coalmine. The first, visible in the early 2000s, was rising apathy in Labour's blue-collar heartlands. As noted by Oliver Heath, whereas in 1964 the difference in reported turnout between the working-class and the middle-class had been less than 5 percentage points, by 2010 this difference in turnout had surged to 19 points. One big reason why was the increasingly narrow social pool from which Labour selected its MPs; whereas in 1964, 37 per cent of Labour MPs had come from manual occupational backgrounds by 2015 this had tanked to just 7 per cent. Along the way, this growing disconnect was hammered home by episodes such as Gordon's Brown dismissal of Mrs Duffy, who had voiced reasonable concerns over the scale of immigration, and Emily Thornberry openly mocking a working-class house that was adorned with flags. As Heath argued: "As the Labour party turned its back on the working class in a bid to appeal to middle-class voters by recruiting more and more candidates from the professional classes, large swathes of the working class simply stopped voting". Many did not share the pro-immigration, pro-EU and strongly liberal views of their representatives.
The second canary was isolated pockets of support for the far-right BNP, including in many Red Wall areas. Alongside abstention, this was another sign that working-class voters did not share the increasingly liberal outlook of their representatives, including in many Labour areas. The BNP was a small party but, as Robert Ford and I pointed out in 2010, between 2001 and 2010 the far-right party was polling strongest in "older, less educated working-class men living in the declining industrial towns of the North and Midlands regions ... [who] express exceptionally high levels of anxiety about immigration and dissatisfaction with the mainstream political parties". The BNP imploded but between 2012 and 2019 Nigel Farage continued to cultivate the same soil, telling us in Revolt on the Right how he deliberately targeted areas that had given strong support to the far-right and coming to the view that he could win over socially conservative workers in Labour areas. This too was an important episode in the longer-term story; all of this helped to further disrupt tribal allegiances to Labour, break habitual voting patterns and make it more acceptable in Labour bastions to break rank by voting for another party (as we argued here and here and presented to Labour in 2014).
All of this should have deeply worried a Labour movement that still liked to see itself as a working-class party. But nor should this have come as a surprise given that quite a few academics (see here, here and here) had been pointing to Labour's weakening relationship with the working-class for many years and a growing rejection of a liberal consensus on the economy and society. In short, while the Red Wall collapsed in 2019 its foundations had been crumbling for many years. To truly make sense of what happened in 2019 we need to not only think about Brexit or Mr Corbyn but sequencing and how, over the longer-term, a number of key events served to push Labour closer and closer to a historic defeat: the long-term weakening of the Labour Party's relationship with the working-class, as reflected in rising apathy and breakaway support for the far-right; then enter Nigel Farage and UKIP, who merge the issues of EU membership and immigration and mobilise the most clearly working-class electorate in British politics, performing well in lots of Labour areas; then, many of these same working-class voters and blue-collar areas, including 60 per cent of Labour-held seats, break heavily for Brexit in 2016; and then they start to break more seriously for the Conservative Party under Theresa May in 2017, before all of this churn and change allows Johnson to drive a bulldozer through Labour's Red Wall in 2019.
7. Johnson identified a new winning formula. While the collapse of the Red Wall had been a long time coming, Johnson was also helped by his party's decision to overhaul its message for these areas. They shared Nick Timothy's core diagnosis that Britain was ripe for a realignment, but they went further and ran a far more competent campaign. As I argued a few months ago, there was much space for a party that leaned left on the economy but right on culture. Johnson and his team stepped into this space. Strong support for Brexit was combined with a more assertive response to austerity; reforming immigration, adopting a tough approach on crime; increased spending on the NHS and infrastructure; increasing the national living wage; addressing regional inequality; and providing state-aid for failing UK businesses. Such policies were designed to appeal to 'cross-pressured' Labour voters who we had been pointing to for some time, whose social conservatism had been loosening their connection to increasingly middle-class and socially liberal Labour MPs as issues like EU membership and immigration jumped up the agenda. All of this points to a demand-side and a supply-side problem for Labour. While the demand for Labour among the working-class has weakened, Labour's pitch to these voters is now being matched by a far more assertive, interventionist and paternalistic Conservative Party that stands more in the tradition of Disraeli than Thatcher. Johnson has recognised one of the fundamental new rules of our political era; that it is easier for the right to move left on economics than it is for the left to move right on questions of identity and culture.
8. Labour was probably also hit by the Brexit Party. In Leave seats it also appears that Labour was further weakened by the Brexit Party. Nigel Farage claimed throughout the campaign that his party could win in places that the Conservatives could not reach – though as illustrated above in many cases the Conservative proved to be more than capable of capturing Labour heartlands. How then did the presence of the Brexit Party impact on the other parties? The figure below shows how Labour lost support irrespective of whether or not there was a Brexit Party candidate. However, the extent to which the change in Labour’s vote share was related to the Leave vote share varies. In seats where the Brexit Party stood a candidate the change in Labour’s vote share was more strongly (and negatively) correlated with the Leave vote (r=-0.61); while in places where the Brexit party did not stand the relationship was much weaker (r=-0.14). In other words, Labour’s support declined more heavily in pro-Leave seats when there was a Brexit party candidate than when there was not. It is important to stress that we cannot from 'aggregate data' infer that Labour support went directly to the Brexit Party; these changes may be masking complex patterns of movement among individual voters. But it does appear that this was a further complication for Labour in its heartlands.
9. This was not a critical election but the latest episode in a longer-term realignment. Put all of this together and we are left with a view of the 2019 general election as being not so much a critical election that marks a radical departure from the past but rather an election that points to the ongoing, longer-term realignment of British politics. Brexit has reconfigured the geographical base of support for Labour and the Conservatives, as Eric Kaufmann and I explain in the New York Times. We are now at a point where lots of voters are putting their cultural preferences ahead of their traditional party loyalties. But much of this had been building over many years. Brexit has thrown our 'new' value divides into the spotlight but these divides were clearly visible long before the referendum took place. As I showed in earlier work, the currents of the Leave vote had been gathering strength for years if not decades before they found their expression, first, in strong support for Nigel Farage and UKIP and, second, in the vote for Brexit in 2016, and then, third, in Boris Johnson's consolidation of the Leave vote in 2019. Brexit is only one by-product of a deeper values divide and I doubt very much that it will be the last.
We can see how these deeper changes are pushing the country toward a much broader realignment by looking at the difference in the Labour and Conservative vote by support for Brexit in England and Wales. As you can see below, which shows the difference between Labour and Conservative support by levels of support for Brexit, back in 2010 the sort of places that ended up backing Leave in large numbers did not vary much in terms of their support for Labour or the Conservatives. However, since the referendum the balance between Labour and the Conservatives in England and Wales has intensified around Brexit. The Conservatives now do much better than Labour in the sort of seats that backed Brexit in 2016. Brexit has basically accelerated a longer-term realignment in British politics and is reshaping the country's political geography, pushing it into a more polarised state. Amid this culture war, the Conservative Party have responded far more effectively than Labour, consolidating Leavers, speaking directly to one side of the values divide and building a new coalition out of voters who felt left behind by a liberal consensus and who often agreed with Labour on the economy but prioritised their cultural preferences on Brexit, immigration and crime. What all of this leaves us with as we head into 2020 is a new culture divide at the very heart of British politics; one that will not be easily fixed and one that will be with us for a long while to come. On that note it is probably time to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Matt
SEPTEMBER 25 2019: BREXIT ELECTION TRACKER UPDATE
Welcome back to the tracker, old friends and new! I've teamed up with fellow Professors Harold Clarke, Marianne Stewart and Paul Whiteley to break down the key trends, numbers and events. Suffice to say there is going to be a lot to discuss!
In the coming weeks and months we will look mainly at Britain's Brexit debate and the looming 'Brexit election'. This election, which will be Britain's fifth nationwide contest in only four years, looks set to be one of the most consequential in the entire postwar era. It will determine not just who governs but could also decide what type of Brexit will emerge, whether Britain will hold a second referendum, whether Brexit will even happen at all and whether the country will see the arrival of the most radical left-wing government in its entire history. The stakes could not be higher for all involved.
First, the polls. As you can see in the chart above, Britain's party system is experiencing profound change. This used to be one of the world's most stable two-party systems. But ever since Britain failed to leave the European Union earlier this year it has imploded into a four-horse race.
Amid the fallout from Brexit, the two main parties -the Conservatives and Labour- find themselves under pressure from the resurgent Liberal Democrats and also Nigel Farage and the populist Brexit Party. One irony of Britain's Brexit moment is that ever since a majority of people voted to leave the EU the country's politics have looked more European. Fragmentation, populism and volatility are the specials of the day.
Our poll trend analysis is based on 157 polls that were conducted between November 4 2018 and September 17 2019. The Conservatives are currently 9 points ahead of Labour, although this is also 10 points down on what the party won in 2017.
There has been much criticism of Boris Johnson but it should also be noted that of the past forty opinion polls Labour has only held a lead in one (and even this was not outside the margin of error). There might be widespread calls for Prime Minister Johnson to resign but both his leadership ratings and the Conservative Party's average level of support have increased in recent weeks, even if his honeymoon has now stalled.
Remarkably, the two big parties combined are now only attracting 57% of the vote. They have shed more than twenty points since the election only two years ago. Brexit is part of the puzzle but it is not the only part. What is happening in Britain also reflects wider winds that are sweeping through many political systems where older mainstream parties are under pressure and new challengers are enjoying unprecedented gains.
The surge of the Liberal Democrats, who have pledged to revoke Article 50, is striking. This reflects the party's strengthened relationship with Remainers. According to YouGov polls, in early 2017 the Liberal Democrats were only attracting 17% of Remainers. Today, they are attracting 41%. And worryingly for the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson and her Lib Dem movement are making serious inroads into Labour's 2017 electorate. One in four people who voted Labour at the election in 2017 are now planning to vote for the Liberal Democrats.
At the other end of the political spectrum, meanwhile, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, remain a significant force. While their offer of an electoral pact was rejected by the Conservative Party, on 12% of the vote Farage and his party still have more than enough support to cost Johnson seats and bring him problems in the all-important marginal constituencies.
Nigel Farage -who has made no secret of the fact that he distrusts Boris Johnson and his advisor Dominic Cummings- is attracting more than one in four Leavers, although his grip over these voters has weakened. Back in June, 56% of Leavers and 45% of 2017 Conservative voters sided with Farage. Today, those numbers are 29% and 16% respectively. If these pro-Brexit voters continue to drift back to Johnson and the Conservatives then their task of winning a working or even commanding majority becomes much easier.
So, what does all of this mean for an election? Based on a fairly simple but indicative swing-based model*, the polling numbers above would leave Conservatives with 323 seats, Labour 222, the Scottish National Party 48, Liberal Democrats 32, Plaid Cymru 4, Greens 2 and Brexit Party 1.
This would leave Boris Johnson and the Conservatives the largest party but with another minority government. Rather than break the parliamentary gridlock such an election would likely see it continue. Obviously, though, a lot could change during the campaign.
One thing that could change, for example, is if Boris Johnson and his party were to continue to eat into Nigel Farage's Brexit Party electorate. If Johnson captures at least half of these voters then we estimate that the Conservatives would win 365 seats -a comfortable majority. Labour would be left with only 191 seats -their lowest since 1935. For Conservatives, this underlines the critical importance of cannibalising Farage's vote.
Estimates of what might happen in specific seats should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Our model suggests that under our headline scenario above the Conservatives might capture Labour seats like Ashfield, Barrow and Furness, Battersea, Bedford, Bishop Auckland, Lincoln and Canterbury while losing the likes of Cheadle, Cheltenham, Hazel Grove, Lewes, Richmond Park and St Albans to the Liberal Democrats. If Farage wants to finally enter the House of Commons then he should probably stand in Thurrock. The SNP, meanwhile, look set to have a good showing north of the border, scooping up eight Conservative seats, a handful from Labour and losing one to the Lib Dems. But, as we say, unless there is a clearer shift in the polls then Boris Johnson is still not sitting safely in majority waters.
Yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court that the suspension of Parliament was unconstitutional has put the cat among the pigeons, and makes the Prime Minister’s job of managing the Brexit process harder. So for the moment the turmoil continues. And we shall be here to crunch the numbers as it unfolds ...
*We estimate votes to seats through a simple but indicative swing-based model. We estimate trends in vote intentions (using Hodrick-Prescott filter) and then compare the most recent vote intention figures with what each party received at the 2017 election. Differences in the percentages are applied to the vote shares each party received in each constituency in Britain. The party with the largest resulting adjusted percentage is the expected winner in a seat.